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Winona LaDuke, Published July 20 2013

Letter: Not your mother’s crude oil

I am a fan of trains. It’s just that now there are few trains that move people. In Detroit Lakes, Minn., you can get a passenger train going east or west at 3 a.m. Not exactly convenient. One reason is that trains no longer move people: They move oil, gas and coal – more than 1,000 cars a day through Detroit Lakes. Our town is about the same size as Lac-Megantic, Quebec, which suffered from a train derailment disaster on a train carrying fracked Bakken oil.

The disaster illustrates a set of policy, safety and unplanned growth challenges. According to World News NBC, “Firefighters said the hot-white blaze left a scene of destruction like nothing they’d ever before encountered.” Bakken shale crude is unconventional in many respects. It is apparently more explosive. Why? We don’t know because there is not a full disclosure of contents. The area is now a crime scene, and officials deny site access. Whether a result of human error, bad decisions on braking, or questionable decisions on what we move so seamlessly on the railroad, life has changed for Lac-Megantic.

When Warren Buffett bought Burlington Northern Santa Fe, he did so for good reason. The oil boom of western North Dakota has no way out, nor does, essentially, the Alberta tar sands. Rail has been the primary mover. Convenient, except we don’t have enough tankers to move this stuff. As a source explains, “They’re using every available car they can get their hands on.” Some of those cars were not set up for what they are carrying.

Then there’s the problem of contents. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 exempted hydraulic fracturing (fracking) from protections under the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act and CERCLA. The act exempts companies from disclosing the chemicals involved in fracking. According to a 2011 congressional report, more than 600 chemicals are used in this process.

Those chemicals include a host of things (a bit more than what one fracking company refers to as things that you can “find in your household”). Chemicals include methanol, benzene, toluene, xylene and ethylbenzene, all known carcinogens. You might find them in your household if you are a meth lab.

We are pretty far out of our league in policy, science and industry. Expansion exceeds regulations, and our country has been denied a basic right to know about not only what’s going on in our water in the fracked lands but also what’s going on in the tankers passing through our small towns. Industry has pushed past safety and regulation. I think that if those trains had nuclear waste signs on them, we might take note.

Shoving this same stuff into a pipeline is not going to protect us in the long term because we still don’t know the implications. A bill called the FRAC Act is in Congress, and would provide some regulation to the industry. So far, that bill has gone nowhere, facing industry opposition. That aside, we may need some more conductors, reducing fatigue on the long hauls, and prayers for the people of Lac-Megantic.

I long for the days of the Galloping Goose. That was the train to have: a small electric that ran through the north country to move people, yes, people.


LaDuke is executive director, Honor the Earth, and an Objibwe writer and economist who works on Minnesota’s White Earth Reservation.